Sunday, January 29, 2006

Happy New Year

Yes, it's the Year of the Dog, and in honour of the occasion, here's Bert.

I should explain that in Thailand we get three New Years. There's the Western one, which is just a lazy continuation of the tacky consumerism we call Christmas - bad muzak versions of Phil Spector, fat babies in Santa suits, hedges toped as reindeer, etc etc. In fact, the Christmas/NY thing is really just a continuation of December 6, which is the King's Birthday and Father's Day all in one package. So what usually happens is the fairy lights go up some time in mid-November, and don't comes down until the end of Jan, after Chinese New Year (which is what we're on now) happens. Lots of food, firecrackers and dragons.

The Chinese began coming to Thailand in big numbers around the end of the 19th century, originally as unskilled labourers. Pretty soon they began making names for themselves in business, so that as early as the 1910s, the then king, Vajiravudh (Rama VI), published a book called The Jews Of The East, suggesting their influence ought to be curtailed. "In matters of money the Chinese are entirely devoid of morals and mercy. They will cheat you with a smile of satisfaction at their own perspicacity," he opined. Sound familiar?

Since then they've integrated fairly well, taking Thai names and so on, but they still dominate the business sector and, increasingly, politics. Only the civil service is an ethnic Thai holdout. Indeed, the big dirty secret of Thai patriotism is that, without the ethnic Chinese, the country would be screwed. Most farangs (that's us gaijin/gweilo/honkies) can't really tell the difference, except at New Year, when the Chinese all wear red shirts. It's like being in the wrong pub during a Manchester derby.

The final celebration comes in April, with Thai New Year, or Songkran. This is essentially trick or treat mated with a wet t-shirt competition; teenagers roaming the streets armed with buckets and water pistols, soaking anything that moves.

The key thing is, everyone takes part in each festival. Dragons, soaking, Auld Lang Syne, the lot. The Chinese know CNY is "theirs" but they don't stop anyone else joining in. The parallel situation in the UK, with hand-wringingly PC council functionaries setting up anaemic "Winter Festivals" and the inevitable opportunistic tabloid backlash about "abolishing Christmas" is simply tiresome. It's a party. Go.

Or don't, which is my usual Oscar-the-Grouch attitude.

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